As we prepare to receive this little one into the church, let us take a moment to remember what we have thought and what we could think about this ancient rite. All over the world people have thought to bathe in streams and rivers and lakes as a sign of a new beginning, of cleansing, and of blessing.
Our baptism had its symbolic origins in the Jewish rite of cleansing. By the first century, people of means would have a mikveh (ritual bath) in their homes. Unless they lived near a stream, they would have had to have water brought in from a cistern or nearby well, which would suggest they also had servants or slaves. This cleansing was both personal — in terms of a purified body — and social — in terms of a communal act of repentance.
John the Baptist accomplishes two actions in his call to repentance. The people who come to hear him and be baptized must be either humble in station or humble in spirit. Were they well-to-do, why would they come to the shore with others who could not afford a private mikveh in their homes? And if they were financially secure, were they Roman collaborators?
John’s call is for a return to the values and identity of the desert, of the covenants. It is a call to the faithful to turn away from Roman values and customs. It is a divisive call because to respond to John’s call meant an intentional rejection of the values of the occupation and its rulers. John’s call for repentance is less personal and more communal. It focusses on the expectation that the people of Israel will be holy and righteous as a grateful response to the love and fidelity of God. Repentance is not about guilt, but about radical change in attitude and behaviour.
The only story of baptism is Jesus’ own. And Jesus does not baptize anyone else himself. Indeed he says to one person to return to his priest for cleansing. Paul, that great interpreter of the early faith, refers to baptism as union with Christ in which people die to the limits of this world and live into the resurrection of Christ. The act of baptism is a culmination of the conversion experience and a turning from all paths except the Way of Jesus, a way which leads to eternal life.
The early church, however, also adopts John’s call for baptism as a cleansing of sin. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, the doctrine of original sin transmitted through conception (i.e. the “taint” of a woman), becomes generally accepted. This unhappy state of affairs could be removed only by Christian baptism. Sin moved from communal infidelity to the covenant to a personal, individual, and dangerous action.
Today, many of us are convinced that God speaks through varied names, in different languages and rites. The test of congruity for Christians is the test of love, social justice, and care for the earth. With this practice, we see that we are all part of the divine program to heal ourselves and our world.
Few of us accept the idea of an original sin which must be expunged, although we would all agree that the norms for humanity must still be taught. Our social evolution has not yet brought us far enough for empathy to be necessarily natural. We realize now that we are not sinful but we are naturally predators, and that energy must be channelled into helpful behaviours.
So what does baptism today mean? I think we would want to retain the idea that baptism brings a person into a familial relationship with the church. We would hope that every person baptized would know that a church was a place of sanctuary and healing for them; that church would be safe space to which a person can always return, no matter how far away they travel.
Baptism is a sign of the pilgrim, of a person on a mission. Jesus gave us a mission to transform the world by our compassion, by our integrity, by our hospitality, and by out generosity. He taught us not to fear difference or otherness, but to make friends everywhere and with everyone. It is no small task to transform the world, so I think that baptism makes us fearless in working with others who share this vision for our planet, our people, and all the creatures.
Finally, baptism offers us a promise that in life and in death we are held in the palm of God’s hand. Death is an event ushering us into new life, as mysterious and unimaginable as our birth. It is the responsibility of the church to ensure that every person baptized by our hand, is also baptized into awe and wonder. All of us must ensure that we remember to hear the wind in the trees and that we are fascinated by the life of other creatures. Mountains and oceans, the sun rising and setting, the mother of pearl that is the moon: all of this calls to us to worship and give thanks. We have nothing to prove and everything to experience and learn. We are all infants at being human, but we trust that the Holy One loves us and is nudging us into full humanity, that one day we may all feel the light of Christ within us and that it may glow steadily without fading.
And so these are the requirements of baptism: wonder, trust in Jesus’ promises, commitment to transforming the world, a willingness to be a lover with God, who created all things in love, and who yearns for us, always.